August 29, 2014

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Richard Vandegeer – Memorial Day Profile

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Jamie Lindstrom, a North Ridgeville veterinarian, knew Richard Vandegeer as the stepbrother he enjoyed playing with when they were small children.
The nation knows Richard Vandegeer as the last official casualty of the Vietnam War and as the last name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Vandegeer died at age 27 in one of the most infamous battles of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Incident of May 15, 1975 —two weeks after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam.
Vandegeer joined the Army in 1968 and signed up to be a helicopter pilot. He knew he could not be sent to Vietnam because his father was already in the Army there, according to Vandegeer’s longtime friend, Richard Sandza of Baltimore.
“Like so many other American young people, Richard Vandegeer did not want to go to Vietnam,” Sandza wrote in a column about his friend for the Baltimore Guide.
Vandegeer spent two years in South Korea. In 1971, he was discharged but grew restless and joined the Air Force. He was sent to Thailand and, on the last day of American involvement, ended up as part of a helicopter outfit based at the Thai borders of Cambodia and Laos.
On May 15, 1975, Vandegeer was sent on a mission to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship that had been captured by the Khmer Rouge. The ship’s crew, however, had been taken off the ship and was reportedly being held on Tang Island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Vandegeer’s helicopter, according to Sandza’s article, had slowed for a landing on the island to deliver a Marine assault force when a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the underbrush blew the helicopter out of the sky.
Vandegeer was one of 18 men who died that day. Fifty others were wounded.
“One of the surviving crewmen told me Vandegeer’s helicopter burned for hours,” Sandza wrote.
In 1991, an operation to recover remains from the helicopter yielded only a large number of co-mingled remains, according to the Arlington National Cemetery Web site.
It wasn’t until four years later that Vandegeer’s remains were identified. Authorities, however, spent another year confirming the results using DNA testing.
Vandegeer’s remains were finally laid to rest in 2000 — 25 years after his death — in Arlington National Cemetery, capping the decade-long recovery and identification operation.
 “I always felt a little cheated because I never got to know him later in life,” says Lindstrom, who was separated from his stepbrother when their parents divorced early in their childhoods.
“I was probably only 5 or 6 then,” Lindstrom said.
“Richard would come over to visit; we liked to do things together. He liked to do things with Lincoln Logs, and we’d just dump them out and start building. It’s funny how some things stick in your mind.”
When Lindstrom’s father and stepmother divorced, she took Vandegeer and returned to her native Netherlands. She and her son returned to the U.S. some years later and settled in Columbus.
Contact Bette Pearce at 329-7148 or bpearce@chroniclet.com.